Excerpt of Tales from the Torrid Zone by Alexander Frater
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The guests, mostly well-heeled Australians in designer evening wear, began drifting in for cocktails, and as a band played island music I thought of my parents living quietly up on the hill, making do on their mission stipend, poor as church mice.
But there had been compensations and we were witnessing one nowa sunset so stunning that around the pool bar all tok tok ceased. The horizon was invaded by an unearthly lavender light which came spilling across the sky then fell into the harbour at our feet, empurpling the air and water, painting our faces with amaranth. Makau told John about Vila Base, built by the American navy in 1941 on the old Belleview Plantation. It had one thousand beds and thirty-six doctors, all top people. Every day C47s flew up to Guadalcanal to bring the casualties. At Bauer Field forty ambulances would be waiting, hospital ships called all the time. I remember the Solace, painted white with a big red cross on the funnel. She used to sail at night, all lit up like a cruise boat. There were Jap subs everywhere, but . . . He shrugged. The old Paton Memorial nameplate is now at Vila Base. In reception.
John nodded. Yes, I know. But he didnt know that Makau had been its first post-independence superintendent. My fathers best student had succeeded him at the infinitely superior hospital he had long badgered the condominium government to build.
It was getting late. Makau rose. Lookim yu! he said.
See you later.
Vanuatus eighty islands, routinely rattled by earthquakes, lie twelve hundred miles east of Australia. Named the New Hebrides by Captain Cook, they became a nineteenth-century Anglo-French condominiuma territorial trade-off in which two metropolitan powers with a thousand years of mutual enmity agreed to share power. It never worked; the Brits complained endlessly about the duplicity of the French, the French bemoaned the constant, furtive manoeuvrings of the Brits.
Their determination to yield nothing led to the duplication of everything: two flags, two anthems, two political doctrines, two currencies, two languages, two sets of postage stamps, two police forces, two legal systems, two jails (the French served better food), two hospitals (my fathers practised better medicine) and allegedly, for an utterly surreal few days, two rules of the road: Brits on the left, French on the right. Locals never spoke of Condominium. They called it Pandemonium.
In 1980, faced with growing UN disquiet, they finally agreed on a joint course of actionto allow the new Ripablik Blong Vanuatu to hoist its gaudy, jungle-hued flag. Yet, six centuries after Agincourt, the native population, schizophrenically split between Anglophones and Francophones, began re-enacting the Hundred Years War. An early Anglophone government sacked not one, but two, French Ambassadors, while the first act of the Francophone administration succeeding it was the mass sacking of Anglophone civil servants.
In one of the seismic family splits not uncommon here, Makaus older brother Dr Johnalso trained by my fatherthrew in his lot with the French. Both were clever and ambitious; while Makau, before independence, ran the British hospital, John ran the French. Makau received an OBE and a gold lighter from the Queen at the British Residency, John a Légion dhonneur (plus a kiss on the cheeks) from De Gaulle at the French Mission. They remained close, but there was an edge to their relationship. And when the new Anglophone government shut down Johns hospital and declared that Makaus would henceforth be Vanuatus major infirmary (and he its medical supremo) it grew distinctly sharper.
During a previous visit, a month before independence, I dined with them bothDr John, a stringy, inquisitive, excitable old man, wore horn-rimmed glasses and did brilliant De Gaulle impressions. Now, little more than a decade later, I found the Francophones had again forced the Anglophones into opposition. Makau deflected questions about his brother; he was OK but inaccessible and, somehow, no longer in the family loop.
Excerpted from Tales from the Torrid Zone by Alexander Frater Copyright © 2007 by Alexander Frater. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.